Upholding another aspect of Ohio’s tort reform, the Supreme Court of Ohio decided on February 15, 2012 that bifurcation of the compensatory and punitive stages in a tort trial is a substantive right. Havel v. Villa St. Joseph, 2012-Ohio-552.  

Background. As part of Ohio’s tort reform in 2005, the Ohio General Assembly enacted Ohio Revised Code § 2315.21(B) (R.C. 2315.21(B)), providing that the trial of compensatory and punitive damages in any tort action shall be bifurcated upon motion of any party. This provision, however, conflicted with Ohio Rule of Civil Procedure 42(B) (Civ. R. 42(B)), which vests a trial court with discretion to bifurcate compensatory and punitive damages in any civil action.  

In Havel, the trial court denied the defendant’s motion to bifurcate in a tort action, and the Eighth District Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that “R.C. 2315.21(B) is unconstitutional because it conflicts with Civ. R. 42(B), in violation of the separation of powers required by the Ohio Constitution, Article IV, Section 5(B), by purporting ‘to legislate a strictly procedural matter already addressed by the Civil Rules.’” Id. at ¶ 8 (quoting 8th Dist. No. 94677, 2010-Ohio- 5251). The Tenth District Court of Appeals reached the opposite conclusion in Hanners v. Ho Wah Genting Wire & Cable SDNBHD, 2009-Ohio-6481 (10th Dist.), and the Eighth District Court of Appeals certified the conflict to the Supreme Court of Ohio.  

In holding that R.C. 2315.21(B) is not unconstitutional, the court explained that under the Ohio Constitution courts have authority to promulgate rules relating to matters of procedure, while the General Assembly has authority to establish substantive law. Havel, 2012-Ohio-522 at ¶ 2. Whether R.C. 2315.21(B) is unconstitutional therefore depends on whether it is a substantive or procedural law. Id. at ¶ 16. The court held that “the statements made by the General Assembly in the uncodified language of S.B. 80 compel the conclusion that although R.C. 2315.21(B) may be packaged in procedural wrapping, it is a substantive law because it creates a right to address potential injustice.” Id. at ¶ 29 (internal quotations omitted). In particular, the General Assembly’s findings and statements “demonstrate[d] its intent to create a substantive right to ensure that evidence of misconduct is not inappropriately considered by the jury in its assessment of liability and its award of compensatory damages.” Id. at ¶ 32 (emphasis added). The court concluded that “R.C. 2315.21(B) creates, defines, and regulates a substantive, enforceable right to separate stages of trial relating to the presentation of evidence for compensatory and punitive damages in tort actions and therefore takes precedence over Civ. R. 42(B) and does not violate the Ohio Constitution. . . .”  

Impact. Havel resolves the conflict between the Eighth and Tenth District Courts of Appeals, and there is now no question that a defendant in a tort action has the right to bifurcation of compensatory and punitive damages upon request.